Abused, neglected children in Michigan face significant challenges in schools

March 28, 2018
Jared Wadley

Four children in front of school building. Illustration credit: Ilma Bilic

ANN ARBOR—By the time some Michigan third-graders take their standardized math and reading tests, they could already be academically disadvantaged—and schools might not even know it.

Nearly one in five (18 percent) public school third-graders have been the focus of a formal investigation by Children’s Protective Services for child abuse or neglect, a new University of Michigan study found.

As a result of these early maltreatment experiences, these children face significant challenges in the classroom and perform poorly on standardized tests, the study’s authors say.

“A major finding of our study is that childhood maltreatment is much more common than the general public likely suspects,” said Joseph Ryan, associate professor of social work and co-director of the Child and Adolescent Data Lab.

Ryan and colleague Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and co-director of the Youth Policy Lab, partnered with the state of Michigan to match child maltreatment records with educational data on all public school children statewide.

Data came from the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The sample consisted of more than 732,800 public school students born between 2000 and 2006. The analyses involved third-graders because it’s the first year in which the state administers standardized math and reading assessments to all children.

Child maltreatment incorporates formal investigations—generally initiated with a call to the state’s hotline—relating to potential neglect and abuse that occurred prior to third grade.

The U-M study found that African-American students, poor students who qualify for free/reduced lunch, students living in high-poverty areas and students attending urban schools are all more likely to have contact with CPS for suspected incidents of child maltreatment.

“In some high-poverty schools, nearly 50 percent of third graders have experienced an investigation for maltreatment,” according to Jacob. “This suggests that child abuse and neglect cannot simply be treated like a secondary issue, but must be a central concern of school personnel.”

Among students who had formal CPS investigations, more than one-third (36 percent)of those investigations were substantiated. However, even unsubstantiated complaints may signal some type of difficulties or need for services within the family.

In general, districts with higher poverty rates also have higher rates of maltreatment investigations, the research shows.

Despite its prevalence for a child’s educational progress, Ryan noted that teachers and administrators typically have little confirmed information about child maltreatment—either for an individual child or at the school level.

“In the vast majority of school districts, the data on child maltreatment and foster care is not linked to a child’s educational records,” Jacob said.

Thus, researchers say, it’s important for school personnel to be aware of the relatively high percentage of students arriving to school with histories of trauma and to actively identify students at risk of academic difficulties.

The findings, “How life outside of a school affects student performance in school,” appear in a special Brookings report.

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